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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2001 Conference
May 27-29, Vancouver 


  The Tornado Effect: When Systems Collide

Mary Lou Collins

Collins, Mary Lou (2001). The Tornado Effect: When Systems Collide.
Online Proceedings of the American Society for Cybernetics 2001 Conference, Vancouver, May 2001.



Fierce cybernetic tornadoes thrash the American work landscape in increasing numbers. Each year more than 2,000,000 workers are victims of workplace violence [U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1998]. Alarming trends show a 400% growth since 1992. That averages 40,000 per state and 110 per day!

A few typical incidents are: a frustrated federal attorney shoves his fist into an office wall, an angry manager smashes his computer at a high-tech firm, a student attacks another student or a teacher, a sexual assault occurs in a company parking lot, a passenger pulls a gun on a taxi driver, a gang shoot-out occurs at a convenience store, a disgruntled employee holds workers hostage then kills himself.

To understand these violent behavioral systems, let's first take a look at similar patterns in Nature--tornadoes. Vortex theory formation tells us that tornadoes begin when several different weather systems meet (Parker, Ed., 1997, 494) during solar heating of the earth. Hot and cold layers of moving air create unstable atmospheric conditions.

Vortex theory formation tells us that tornadoes begin when several different weather systems meet (Parker, Ed., 1997, 494) during solar heating of the earth. Hot and cold layers of moving air create unstable atmospheric conditions.

According to tornado experts (Snow, 1984, Parker, 1997), updrafts, downdrafts, and rapid temperature change cause the layers to churn. Water condensation, heavy air, and kinetic energy burst from the parent cloud. A triggering event, usually a lightning bolt, creates a huge energy force that whirls into a vortex or funnel.

As the turbulent parent storm system moves, the funnel collects momentum with dirt, dust, and objects moving downward in circular motion before it crashes into the landscape. Some storms spawn several tornadoes at the same time and throw them into different directions (Snow, 1984).

Now let's take a look at the behavior of these weather systems through first-order cybernetics (Wierner, 1948; Ashby, 1956).

A dynamic system starts with a triggering event creating a chain reaction of events that drive the system. When one part of a system interacts with another part, and the system as a whole has an effect on that part, a circular causal relationship or feedback cycle forms. When a system grows or escalates, it is positive. When it decreases, it is negative. The picture below shows a moving cybernetic system:



Source: Mary Lou Collins (Design) and Stephanie Koessler (Adobe Photoshop 5.0)


  Figure 1 is a classic example of a how a causal cybernetic feedback mechanism or circular information system works. A triggering event expressed as A starts the cycle, causing a chain reaction of events represented by B, C, and D to drive the system. Feedback loops, or arrows, illustrate its movement.

In the positive tornado feedback cycle, the system does not stop with one circle. After one cycle, it forms another round or iteration, accumulating and carrying its matter and energy through its funnel as Figure 2 below demonstrates. It plunges downward, in a repetitive, coiling spiral somewhat like the metal "Slinky" toys that were popular in the 1970's.



Source: Mary Lou Collins (Design) and Stephanie Koessler (Adobe Photoshop 5.0)


  According to prominent contemporary thinkers, Western civilization today experiences one of the most critical paradigm shifts in human history (Capra, 1983; Cantor, 1990; Toffler, 1990) as it moves slowly from centuries of rigid mechanical Newtonian science into a new era of systems world view.

Reeling from fear, uncertainty, and mistrust, people behave like tornadoes in today's highly complex work environment (Wheeler and Baron, 1994). According to Harvard social scientist Chris Argyris (1973), there are many subtle layers of complexity in the workplace that create toxic residue or "dry rot" that is a sign of system entropy or deterioration.

Argyris predicted almost thirty years ago in Organizations of the Future (1973) that new social conflict was emerging:

"Public and private organizations seem to be full of internal conflict that cannot be surfaced or discussed, surrounded by an increasingly disappointed, if not hostile environment. . . .leading to a self-serving cluster of trends slowly but surely leading to a social explosion."

Downsizing, lay-offs, mergers, acquisitions, hostile takeovers, failure of new technologies and special programs create the more obvious troubled environments that form storm centers where behavioral tornadoes spawn (Buono and Bowditch, 1989). By the time a bankruptcy, a reduction-in-force (RIF), or a union strike occurs, conditions of tornado conflict have been at work for a long time.

When conflicts simmers and spreads into larger tensions, a positive feedback system forms that operates something like a tornado. What causes these harmful chain reactions? Studies by a leading social psychologist Kurt Lewin during the past century tell us that behavior is never isolated and that it is emotional expression (Lewin, 1939).

Lewin believed that behavior is influenced by the social situation and less dependent on other factors. One behavior incident may be a piece of a chain reaction of previous events not always obvious or contain several antecedents. According to Lewin, social influences enter into every action of the individual.

Recent work by Nobel Prize winner Candace Pert of the National Institute of Health in Chevy Chase, Maryland tells us that people are complex emotional webs that interconnect with many other social and cultural systems (Pert, 1997). She maintains that emotions have sensors throughout the entire human body that read their environment and react accordingly.

When violence is as pervasive to the social habitat as it is in the contemporary America, it is not surprising that human emotions are potentially disruptive. Hidden layers of unresolved inner human tensions are the most potentially dangerous layers of a troubled system; anger, frustration, low self-esteem, shame, humiliation coupled with social and cultural alienation and a sense of failure provides motivation for destructive conflict. Because they may not be noticeable by others, they are potentially even more hazardous. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma in 1994 by Timothy McVey illustrates this point.

A sharp, triggering event, something as simple as a one word emotional insult can start a behavioral tornado system. When it begins, inevitably it touches these layers of unresolved tensions waiting to snap or explode. As in the Oklahoma tragedy, the unresolved emotional conflict simmered for months and eventually developed a target. The ultimate collision is always harmful (Buono and Bowditch, 1989; University of Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center, 2000).

In the public school system, adolescent behaviors also illustrate the tornado conflict phenomena. Between 1999 and 2001, I observed various violent incidents similar to the behavioral events leading to the Santee, CA shooting of March 2001. One particularly vivid example of bullying behavior (Batsche & Knoff, 1994) took place in the American Southwest in April of 2001 at a Middle School. Fifteen seventh grade Hispanic boys acted out various forms of hostile aggression against a white male classmate.

They kicked and pushed him in the crowded halls, threw his backpack into the garbage can, and tore up his assignments. They threatened to beat him up if he told anyone; thereby, a self-reinforcing conflict cycle grew. The boys taunted him.

"Gaylord, we hear your Mother has a girlfriend."

Verbal and physical assaults continued. The boy's feeble attempts to defend himself aggravated the group system and escalated its tensions. His behavior became more withdrawn; his outbursts of hostility grew. His attendance and grades, not surprisingly, suffered.




  When I learned of the situation, the boy's behavior was at-risk. I reasoned with him in calm language that talking to the vice-principal might be helpful. The vice-principal had the reputation for being democratic, fair, and respectful of all students, yet firm in his discipline.

The victim finally agreed to tell his story. Divorced parents without a strong family support system left him vulnerable. What resulted was an extraordinary intervention by the school where the vicious feedback cycles were stopped without retaliation.

Putting his arm on the boy's shoulders, the vice-principal smiled and chatted amicably, steering him outside for a walk around the playground together. The boy's countenance changed. Eventually they stopped in front of each of his tormentors. Non-threatening conversation changed the system.

Without accusation or confrontation, he asked smiling, "My friend here tells me that a certain group of boys has pestered him all year." He described each incident. "Can any of you tell me who is doing this? Our rules protect everyone and they prohibit threatening behavior. Threat is violence. If you know who it is, please come to talk to me."

Amazingly, within a week each boy talked to the vice-principal. Behind the aggression was more than peer pressure; there lurked poignant stories of hurt, resentment, and cultural alienation (Batsche & Knoff, 1994).

When the boys were able to talk with a non-threatening authority figure, see how they could improve a bad situation without severe punishment, their behavior changed. [Competitive sports, business, movies, television, and video games glamorize male toughness within the Western patriarchal cultures.]

Parents were contacted. Each boy apologized sincerely to the victim, chose school detention or playground clean up, rather than face more serious consequences of suspension or Juvenile Court. As the behavior changed, the feedback cycle became negative or decreased until it dissolved.

In 1997 a case of destructive or severe tornado conflict occurred within the New York City police department involving a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, who was beaten and tortured by police officers. Ultimately, the victim won an $8.5M settlement from the city, the largest claim of its kind (Feuer, 2001). Where fear, frustration, and anger were buried within the police organization's culture, the first Louima episode became a triggering event to start the chain reaction of abusive behavior.

Shock waves hit the federal government in 1992 when the Clinton-Gore Administration attempted "radical" change of the gigantic system of three million employees. Known as the Reinvention of Government (Posner and Rothstein, 1994), the program cut once secure jobs, streamlined business procedures, and reshuffled work relationships–all to little purpose or result. The story below shows how the cybernetic cycles can grow and become violent in public systems when employees feel threatened by change.

A graduate student team from George Washington University uncovered these behavioral tornado patterns (Collins and Rovira, 1994) in the United States Agency for International Development [USAID] while they conducted a research project for the Clinton Administration (Barr, 1994) on customer satisfaction related to the Reinvention of Government program.

When the GWU project arrived at USAID, rumors, confusion over reengineering (Hammer and Champy, 1994), and paralyzing Angst gripped the troubled system. Signals of a merger with the State Department became political reality on Capitol Hill. Congressmen reminded opposition that in 1990 the agency had the highest incidents of corruption of all federal organizations. Tensions were high. People feared job loss and its associated traumas.

USAID employees joining the project were threatened and intimidated by senior management. The promised project resources were cut off, forcing the students to pay expenses out of their pocket or risk failing their graduate level course.

Destructive conflict (Ellis and Fisher, 1994) between managers who wanted to preserve the status quo and those who wanted to change the system became particularly ugly. Typical of bureaucracies everywhere, the organization resisted change. Unable to find support from top executives, several employees left.

The GWU researchers found widespread employee anger, evidence of unethical management conduct, harassment and verbal abuse, sabotage, discrimination, and manipulation of the merit system. Fear and mistrust were deeply embedded in the system like a malignant cancer. Managerial accountability was absent particularly among the Senior Executive Service.

They found that where managers routinely ignored federal personnel regulations, union grievances and legal action were high, adversely affecting productivity and morale. Mid-level managers (GS-14) were extremely vulnerable to adverse pressure from their supervisors as they were forced to carry out unpopular practices. Civil service employees complained of unequal treatment between them and the Foreign Service, union and merit system sympathy with management, and of being powerless.

They expressed bitterness and resentment to have no other option but to seek expensive outside legal help as a last resort to settle disputes. Legal costs ranged anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 and did not guaranty employees to win. Management insiders told the researchers secretly, "something is wrong with the system, but the problem is deeply entrenched."

A safety net for employees to discuss change efforts, share concerns, and solve problems in professional, non-threatening ways was not present at USAID: it lacked a healthy conversing culture (Stewart, 2001). These management practices hurt organizational health (Ackoff, 1981) and inflict pain, stress, and sickness on its members, ultimately weakening them. Moreover, operational costs are higher in unhealthy systems.

Where a high degree of trust and respect for differences exist in social groups, conflict can be constructive (Ellis and Fisher, 1994). When it drives people to engage in positive dialogue to find ways to achieve mutual goals and solve problems for the benefit of the system, it can be highly motivational (Barstow, 1990). However, where communications are closed, fear, mistrust, and disrespect prevail, providing conditions for destructive social conflict.

In the case of USAID, social problem solving appeared to be tantamount to a cultural taboo, as the prevailing autocratic management system favored secrecy, information hoarding, and traditional complaint remedies such as the grievance that developed slowly and could be easily manipulated (Collins and Rovira, 1994). Where labor - management systems are adversarial and unethical, conditions for tornado conflict are ripe.

From 1994 to 1996 I conducted over a hundred random interviews with federal employees from eight different agencies in the District of Columbia, Southern Maryland, and Northern Virginia from various levels of tenured civil federal service. I used the same USAID question set involving management and personnel practices.

Reports of serious conflict spirals like those at USAID were not uncommon at the other agencies because they share the same system of rules and regulations. Frustration with the federal complaint system came from both employees and management representing all the agencies I interviewed.

Many shared the view that their labor unions, the Merit System Protection Board, and the Equal Opportunity office provided little relief and were often co-opted by federal managers, primarily because they reported to the same management system. As one manager put it, "There has to be a better way of doing business."

The whistleblower phenomenon in public and private sector organizations has similar cybernetic, self-reinforcing behavior spirals. A typical scenario goes like this: an employee reports an incident of unethical or illegal activity to law authorities or the press. An investigation occurs and the management system typically fights back.

Accused private sector managers attempt to fire the individual. In tenured systems, common planned reactions are destabilization--threat, punishment, intimidation, harassment, or isolation (Reynolds, 1999). Employees are often publicly discredited. These adverse actions accelerate a destructive feedback cycle.




  People subject to extended periods repetitive threat and humiliation experience extreme physical and mental stress in shame, low self-esteem, and often depression that weakens their health, work performance, personal relationships, and often has lasting harmful effects (Sidman, 1989) similar to post-traumatic shock on the victim.

Conflict over the hotly contested sole-source federal contract award, political intrigue, and disagreement between engineers at NASA and its contractors spawned many behavioral tornadoes between 1973 and 1986 (Marx, Stubbart, Traub, and Cavanaugh, 1987).

Prior to the Challenger tragedy, engineers pleaded with their corporate and political leaders to delay the shuttle launch as the space vehicle motor had faulty rubber rings at the rocket body joints.

A study involving several national and international nurses associations shows that doctor verbal abuse and intimidation of nurses is rife in the health care community (Araujo and Sofield, 2000). Nurse shortages, long Emergency Room waits, and even violence in Emergency Rooms in America at the present are by-products of the complex system strain. Other conditions such as lack of patient insurance coverage, flawed work processes, and high nurse-patient ratios are symptoms of system deterioration.

When people are willing to intervene without violence in a menacing behavior pattern before anyone is hurt, results can be gratifying. In today's public school systems the continuous presence of policemen and trained monitors relieve much of the system agitation, however, the turbulent underlying conditions remain.

Many antecedent social and cultural tensions feed the self-reinforcing feedback cycles. Television is major culprit. According to a three-year empirical study by Stanford University, television violence stimulates aggression (Robinson, 2001). High School and Middle School shootings during the past three years have several commonalities: causal relationships between the Hollywood glamorization of violence, parental neglect, social alienation, and access to weapons were present.

Another major tornado conflict feeder is discrimination. It smolders below the surface in all American organizations–public schools, government, military, church, law enforcement, politics, non-profit organizations, and the private sector, according to a New York Times study in 2000 ( The insightful series of fifteen investigative articles called "How Race Is Lived in America " reveal deeply embedded recurring cultural patterns (Sack, 2000).

In November, 2000, the Coca-Cola Company paid $192.5 million to settle a racial bias case covering hundreds of black workers who said they lost out on pay and promotion (daily news, It is interesting that the United Nations voted in May, 2001 to remove the United States from the key U.N. Human Rights Commission (daily for its record on racism.

Prominent social psychologists made a correlation between the societal system, workplace conditions, organizational aggression, and violence over fifty years ago (Lewin, 1946). Extensive studies conducted by Lewin and others show that individuals in authoritarian systems are more aggressive.

Del Jones (1997, 3,11) echoes the same findings in The Awareness Journal published by the Partnership Way Center in Tucson, Arizona that "the more hierarchal and authoritarian an institution is, the more violence there is."

When all system stakeholders converse in meaningful ways about their future (Ackoff, 1981), share vision, values, and purpose, new energies drive them to produce extraordinary things (Senge, 1990). Native Americans used this powerful strategy hundreds of years ago (Lowry and Mattini, 1999).





Deeply rooted social ills such as drug and alcohol dependence, parental neglect, child abuse, domestic violence, carry potential psycho-chemical drivers to trigger adolescent and adult behaviors into conflict and aggression (Batsche & Knoff, 1994; Sidman, 1989; Albrecht, 1997; Wheeler & Baron, 1994).

According to Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade (1987), social systems for the past five thousand years are constructed to dominate and to control by force, rather than to nurture or enable people to realize their highest human potentials. Self-reinforcing systems of oppression and coercion are deeply buried within those systems (Leonard, 2001).

The prominent Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana maintains that love not antagonism is the biological basis of all social behavior (Maturana, 1991, 308). He contends that mankind is not programmed to destroy others to survive, but that we were uniquely designed to accept others. Thus, through language, purposeful conversation, respect, and dignified human connections, mankind can bring forth a more humane world.

While some American organizations display humane characteristics and healthy work habitats, they appear to be outnumbered by antagonistic ones. Indeed, a very troubled side of our capitalistic society has created a frightening tornado phenomenon to threaten our workplaces for years to come.




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